'Killing Reagan' Director: How Tim Matheson Brought Ronald Reagan Back to Life (Guest Column)

Rod Lurie discusses how the star of his upcoming TV movie nailed the diction, voice and bearing of the 40th president — and found "a way to like this man who both he and I considered so destructive to our country."
YouTube/National Geographic
Tim Matheson as Ronald Reagan in 'Killing Reagan'

The best portrayal ever of a real-life president was Anthony Hopkins' Richard Nixon in Nixon. Then came Hopkins' John Quincy Adams in Amistad, then maybe Michael Gambon's LBJ in Path to War and after that Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln in Lincoln. The best performance of this kind from an actual American was, I’m going to say, William Devane's Kennedy in The Missiles of October.

Now, here I am with Tim Matheson at Art’s Deli in Studio City. He has just been hired to portray Ronald Reagan in Killing Reagan, based on Bill O’Reilly’s best-seller. It’s going to be for the National Geographic Channel, Scott Free is producing and I’m directing. This isn’t going to be easy and Tim knows it. Americans know their presidents, love some of them, despise others — and they’re going to give little leeway to actors who muck it up even kind of a little bit.

Those actors above? They got it right. But what was the key? 

I had brought with me Al Apone, one of our great makeup artists, to tell me if we even had a starting point, from a physical perspective. The split second that Al met Tim he waved off any problems. Tim was about the same age that Reagan was when our film is set (1981), he’s roughly the same height and there is something about the way Tim’s eyes crease and extend when he smiles that replicated Reagan almost perfectly. He’d have to do this and that, but with the right wig to simulate the famous pompadour (it would be designed by Melissa Yonkey), Al was convinced we’d have a near-perfect physical Reagan. “No worries,” Al said before he took off. (He ended up being correct, by the way.)

But, you know, neither of us was convinced that it was important to get Tim to be the spitting image of Reagan. Hopkins looked nothing like Nixon. Gambon looked nothing like LBJ. And audiences still bought it.

In fact, John Frankenheimer once told me that to get Michael Gambon to portray Johnson in (his near masterpiece) Path to War, all they really needed to do was get two or three other character traits really correct — and they had to be character traits that the public was familiar with. In the case of Johnson, it was the drawl and the way Johnson leaned his body when he spoke to people. Frankenheimer explained to me, "He leaned just exactly so. We did what we did with makeup, but then Michael did his magic trick with the leaning and he became Johnson."

So what was Reagan’s "lean"? 

Well, there was the way he spoke, for one — a Midwestern regionalism, but it was pulled back because of his radio training. Tim hooked up with the great dialect coach Jessica Drake to achieve this. But, even there, as he was having an Art’s hamburger, Tim was talking the Reagan talk. It wasn’t long before, in every conversation I had with Tim, he was speaking in Reagan voice.

Tim replaced his lines in the screenplay with all his lines phonetically written out.  For example, here he is screaming at black protesters in the Bronx:

i'm trying da tell yoo! i cAnt do a dAm thing four ya

if i dOnt gEd uhlected!

And here is what he put into the teleprompter during the debate sequence with Jimmy Carter — he just read directly off of it:

are you bedder off/ than you were four years agO↑? / is it

easier fur you da gO An buy things in the stores than it

wuz four years agO

But that’s diction. The voice itself is a whole different animal. Reagan had a mellifluous thing working and Tim had to place his own voice deeper into his chest to strike a similarity. And so, wherever he was, I’d see Tim reading aloud, strengthening that muscle.

Reagan also leaned, but he leaned differently than Johnson did. Whereas LBJ leaned into people in order to impose his will, Reagan was hard of hearing and it was thus necessary for him to hear people. It’s a different kind of body language and Tim understood that.

There was at least one other thing, and it’s a something I have never seen by other actors who have tried to play Reagan: the breathing. Have you ever noticed how Reagan breathes? Unlike most of us, Reagan would breathe within sentences — and he would sometimes breathe deeply, as if he was trapping air on his chest cavity. It created interesting and very human pauses when he spoke. It was also a kind of body language.

Tim laid out the game plan for playing Reagan at that lunch. "Perfect," I thought, "one less thing for me to worry about."

Tim’s bigger problem was finding a way to like this man who both he and I considered so destructive to our country. We each had to find our own way there, but I was happy Tim was working on the heavy lifting.

Actors are great for different reasons. In Tim’s case, I am convinced that his qualities come from extraordinary preparation. Maybe it came from fear. If he failed, the whole world would know he failed. There would be no wiggle room. 

He need not worry. The next director writing an article like this one will have to put Tim in the first paragraph.

Rod Lurie is a former film critic who has directed films including 2000's The Contender and TV series including Commander-in-Chief. His latest project, the TV movie Killing Reagan, premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, Oct. 16.